Apr 27, 2024 - Technology

Sick of toxic screen time? Dumbphones are having a moment

Illustration of a rotary phone dial with clouds moving in the center

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Breaking up with your smartphone is hard. But a growing "dumbphone" market is giving offline alternatives.

The big picture: The well-known negative effects of screens — loneliness, addiction and anxiety or depression — has left many eager to disconnect.

  • A dumbphone is a basic, '90s-inspired cellphone without the vortex of apps that contribute to high screen times. A return to texts and calls, if you will.
  • The New Yorker called dumbphones' popularity a "burgeoning cottage industry" earlier this month.
  • Influencers and brands are in on it too, with YouTube content creators sharing their experiences and recommendations.
  • Heineken recently released in limited stock The Boring Phone along with clothing brand Bodega. With no apps, the phone prompts users to start conversations.
  • Consider the dumbphone another entrant in Gen Z's embrace of retro: landline phones, CDs and film photography.

State of play: DumbWireless, founded in 2022, offers phones ranging from $50 to upwards of $300 from companies including Light, Punkt and Nokia, as well as a T-Mobile service plan with various data options.

  • LA-based couple Will Stults and Daisy Krigbaum founded the platform after struggling to unplug.
  • "Everybody gets that creeping feeling that they can't go on with the way they're doing things with their smartphone," Krigbaum said.
  • They buy phones and other accessories, like cases and SIM cards, wholesale. And they field questions from prospective customers.
  • Another resource, "The Dumbphone Finder" started by Jose Briones, connects people with similar options.

By the numbers: DumbWireless sold about $68,000 worth of phones last month, up from $5,000 in March 2023.

  • About 4,200 items were ordered from Briones' affiliate links on Amazon from January to March 2024, an increase from about 800 in the same three-month period in 2023.
  • The company that manufactures Nokia phones saw its sales of flip phones double in 2023 compared with 2022, per Yahoo News.

Reality check: Smartphone dependency has somewhat dropped among Gen Z and Millennials in recent years, but most are still reliant on screens.

  • In 2018, 28% of 18-29 year old respondents said they were dependent on smartphones. In 2023, that dropped to 20%, according to a 2023 Pew Research survey.
  • Only 1% of people between 18-29 years old reported owning a non-smartphone.

Context: The alarming relationship between social media use and mental health problems among America's youth has been well documented.

  • A buzzy new book by an NYU professor even posits: No smart phones for kids before high school.

Between the lines: Concerned parents looking to buy their kids' first phones frequently seek advice and products from DumbWireless, its founders told Axios.

  • Those trying out dumbphones often still have a smartphone, swapping a SIM card between the two.

Go deeper: The humble landline phone beloved by Gen Z

Go deeper